Despite some initial sabre-rattling after Hong Kong’s current upsurge of anger turned violent on July 1, Chinese military assets will evidently not be moving into town any time soon.

Local law enforcement has risen to the challenge and learned how to crack heads, which should be enough to hold the line while Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, tries to ease tensions with her community “dialogues”.

Carrie Lam. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Such efforts on the scene in Hong Kong should allow time for the ultimate decision-makers, in Beijing, to come up with some solutions. The only problem is that they still seem as uncertain as they were when the crisis erupted last summer.

The trigger was Carrie Lam’s attempt to force Hong Kong’s legislature to approve a government bill that would have allowed the extradition of fugitive criminal suspects, including Hong Kong citizens, to China for crimes allegedly committed there.

She has since withdrawn the bill but can do no more except plead, so far in vain, for a return to normalcy. She has also said her margins for manoeuvre are “very limited.” Lam did not explain this cryptic comment. Presumably she feels unable to do more because her superiors in Beijing would have it no other way.

In mid-July, however, officials in Beijing were reportedly working on “a plan”. The immediate aim was to find ways of defusing tensions, but also included were ideas about long-term strategy, and perhaps major changes in Beijing’s Hong Kong management style. Work was proceeding under the direction of the Communist Party’s Central Coordination Group for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs.

It sounded promising, like perhaps what many people here have been dreaming about for years.

File photo: May James/HKFP.

Beijing’s original “One Country, Two Systems” formula for managing post-colonial Hong Kong is unravelling and the strains are more evident now than ever before. The formula is not sustainable because Beijing has continued to impose its own definitions on all the promised rights and freedoms, and Hongkongers are pushing back. The many mainland transplants are being rejected.

But where is the comprehensive new plan? The report about a strategic re-think in Beijing came out in mid-July. Perhaps officials are waiting for the big 70th anniversary National Day celebrations on October 1, before making more headlines.

Or perhaps not. Because the only talk so far has been about lax standards of patriotic political education and the presumed economic and social causes of  Hong Kong’s discontent – which has only produced more of the same here.

The Hong Kong Dream

That Hong Kong’s problem is political is as clear as the light of day. In response to Beijing’s concern about economic and social inequities, one moderately-conservative Chinese-language newspaper even featured, in English, the current local variation on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential election campaign slogan with a headline that read: “It’s NOT the Economy, Stupid”.

File photo: Isaac Yee/HKFP.

Clinton’s campaign had focused on the United States economy, just as Beijing officials seem intent on doing now for Hong Kong.  Only in his case it really was the economy. He prevailed with his arguments and won the election.

Here, it really does seem stupid to focus on economic and social issues as the cause of Hong Kong’s angry mood. Just because the current insurrection is youth-driven is no reason not to see it as only the latest phase of a popular political movement that has been ongoing since the 1980s.

Protests have taken a violent turn because the public’s patience has finally been exhausted. Or, in the words of the graffiti left behind when protesters shocked the community on July First by trashing the main chamber of Hong Kong’s legislative assembly: “You have taught me that peaceful protest is useless.”

Why has the older generation, ever law-abiding and peaceful, not risen up to disown that politically sacrilegious act? Probably because the older generation knows the graffiti message is true. The assembly is a disfigured descendant of Hong Kong’s wholly appointed colonial legislature that featured consultation, consensus, and “safe” votes for the government, but not representation for the people.

The graffiti on a column in the legislature reads: “It was you who taught me peaceful marches are useless.” Photo: Thammakhun John Crowcroft/HKFP.

The older generation of Hongkongers has been forced to vote with their feet, walking endless miles up and down the same streets for the past two decades, all in the name of political causes that have reached a dead end.

But by voting with their feet, they did at least succeed in preventing three major Beijing-inspired intrusions: National security legislation, in 2003; a proposed compulsory national political studies curriculum for all students, in 2012; and now the extradition bill.

Yet the intrusions continue along with multiple cross-border infrastructure projects and continual official talk about economic integration. So, sons and daughters are being forgiven for using the same streets in a different way.

Official prescriptions

Whatever re-think might currently be underway, it still comes with the proviso that Beijing officials are looking to ferret out “foreign force” manipulators allegedly at work in pursuit of their old aim, using Hong Kong as a base to infiltrate and destabilise Communist Party rule in China.

File photo: GovHK.

This storyline dates back to the earliest post-1949 days of the People’s Republic, when Hong Kong really was being used as a base for such aims.

The line is now being reproduced almost daily by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing media, citing authorities in Beijing. It is also being circulated at every opportunity by pro-establishment partisans here, and by otherwise well-meaning non-political onlookers.

The arguments are an undifferentiated mix of assumptions about underground secret agents funding and directing protesters, and accusations about the realities of modern-day diplomacy.

Young activist Joshua Wong, hero of the political education protest in 2012, is only the latest to be excoriated, as a “traitor” and “puppet,” in every report about his lobbying trips to Washington and London.

National leader Xi Jinping wove all the themes together in a major speech, delivered on September 3, at the Central Party School. Referring to the challenges posed by Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, he invoked familiar concepts from the early revolutionary days of Mao Zedong with talk about struggle, risk-taking, and flexibility – all for use against enemies seen and unseen.

File photo: GovHK.

The aims: To “smash the absurd aspiration for colour revolution,” and overcome all challenges to unified Communist Party rule, national sovereignty, and China’s rejuvenation.

Later, Xi Jinping addressed united front loyalists, enjoining them to double down on their “patriotic love” of Hong Kong and Macau. Later still, he chaired a meeting of the Communist Party’s topmost Political Bureau, to underscore the significance of patriotic political education for the entire nation.

More interesting was the suggestion deriving from another standard view, namely, that Hong Kong youth are restless due to underlying economic and social grievances. This idea is reinforced by the standard reference to what is happening now as “social unrest”.

If the powers that be and newspaper editors could bring themselves to call it what it is, namely, “political unrest”, plausible solutions might be more forthcoming. Housing, job opportunities, and inequality are easier to discuss because they take as a given the existing political order.

Specifically, for this summer’s social unrest, mainland sources finally hit upon Hong Kong’s exorbitantly high cost of housing as the cause of youthful protest. And with a view to boosting the economy, representatives of some of China’s largest state-owned enterprises were called to a meeting in nearby Shenzhen, where they were urged to step up investment in their Hong Kong operations.

File photo:

Why the sudden focus in September is unclear, as is its point of origin. Probably not by coincidence, the District Council election is coming up soon, on November 24, and potential candidates are beginning to appear on street corners around town.

Foremost among the early bird pamphleteers, out to catch the morning rush-hour crowd, are members of Hong Kong’s largest political party, the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB). ] With over 36,000 members, it has grown into a mass-based organisation, like the Communist Party itself. Other parties here are minuscule by comparison. None have more than a few hundred members.

But DAB leaders have been fretting all summer about the likely negative impact on their election prospects due to the unprecedented upsurge of anti-Beijing anti-Communist rhetoric now being openly generated on the street. They and their pro-establishment allies, plus the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions, have majorities on all 18 District Councils due to the neighbourhood services they can afford to provide.

They fear losing their commanding edge, so perhaps Beijing was trying to help out by focusing on Hong Kong’s underlying social and economic issues, with special emphasis on housing.

File photo:

Most dramatic was the suggestion that the government pressure Hong Kong’s big property developers to step up and do their share. Among their many sins is the practice of hoarding land for later use and playing the market by withholding newly completed housing units until the time is right to maximise profits.

The Hong Kong government is planning a “vacancy tax” to address the latter problem. And one pro-Beijing legislator is so worried about the potential backlash that she is proposing resumption of the entire 172-hectare Fanling Golf Course as well.

Included in this drive was a Beijing endorsement for the DAB’s proposal that Chief Executive Carrie Lam invoke Hong Kong’s Lands Resumption Ordinance to take back vacant rural land. This could free up space for faster suburban housing development.  The idea was promptly rejected by the local landowner’s association, otherwise known as the Heung Yee Kuk (Rural Council).

Hong Kong youth are also being reminded, yet again, about all the career opportunities awaiting them across the border –  if only they will conquer their prejudices and venture there.

“One Country, Two Systems” is a great success, proclaim mainland speakers at every opportunity. Perhaps the strategic re-think is proving more difficult than originally anticipated. Evidently still unwilling to confront Hong Kong’s rejection of the formula, they actually have no solutions at all.

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Suzanne Pepper

Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and Hong Kong resident with a long-standing interest in Chinese politics. In her book, 'Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform', Pepper addresses debates surrounding democracy and dictatorship. Her blog following Hong Kong's integration within the Chinese political system dates back to 2009.